The week before the world shut down, my mother-in-law received news that her cancer had spread to her lungs. She had battled ovarian cancer for the last 10 years and was now out of treatment options. We weren’t oblivious to this possibility, but when someone fights so hard for so long you often believe them to be invincible.
We packed up that weekend to head to Cleveland. She watched her only grandchild throw the ball and play with the energy only a toddler possesses. I grabbed her hand and placed it on my stomach, willing her soon-to-be granddaughter to kick for Grandma. We had an amazing trip, and as we said our goodbyes we promised frequent visits.
The next weekend orders from the governor’s mansion started a series of shutdowns. We mistakenly believed this would be short-term. As the weeks passed, my mother-in-law continued to decline.
We waffled between tough questions. Did we risk exposing ourselves to the most COVID-saturated county? Should we drive four hours just for a porch visit?
Our ongoing debate was further complicated by our pregnancy. At my 20-week ultrasound, the medical team noticed my cervix had shortened. At 24 weeks, I was admitted to manage preterm labor after discovering I was one centimeter dilated. Our mantra became “no micro-preemies in a pandemic.”
Over the next four weeks, I watched my husband battle unfathomable worry. He carried the weight of his mother’s prognosis and an increasing worry for the life of his unborn daughter. He assumed almost all household responsibilities as I was now on bedrest. The worry was palpable and most days our house felt somber.
Her last week of life, things progressed quickly. My husband traveled alone. In her final hours, my husband FaceTimed us. Our toddler exclaimed “Grandma!” and kissed the screen. She was unresponsive, but I wholeheartedly believe she heard him. He called later that night so I could say goodbye. I snuck to a quiet corner and deeply sobbed my goodbyes. I promised to take care of her son and grandbabies, to try to make my husband like Slovenian food, and to keep her flowers alive. I told her how desperately I wished our daughter would meet her.
In the early hours of the morning, I received the call from my husband that she had passed. I buried my head and wept.
We envisioned a slow departure. Time to create mementos for our children. We’d envisioned discussing things she wanted us to tell them about their grandma and ways she’d want her life honored. Some days my husband exclaims his anger over the global shutdown. He runs through a list of things he lost.
“I’d want her to cut my hair one more time. She loved cutting my hair.”
“I wish she could’ve made a blanket for our kids like she made me.”
“I wanted to get her voice saying I love you for a Build-A-Bear for the kids.”
In these moments, the grief is heavy and the loss feels great. We’re reminded of stolen visits when we remember her crying saying, “I hope I get to see you again.”
After she passed, I scheduled a visit with the hopes of being cleared for the funeral. When the doctor exclaimed that I had progressed to 2.5 centimeters, I sat up and wept. Through heavy sobs, I asked if I had to be admitted. She slowly nodded and pulled me in for a hug.
On the way to the hospital, I profusely apologized to my husband and mother-in-law. I felt my absence dishonored her life. Through the magnesium drip fog, we made plans for me to attend the funeral via FaceTime.
He FaceTimed me before the visitation so I could see her. I sobbed and apologized over and over. Seats were spread out to accommodate social distancing and many of the guests were covered with face masks. The thought of my husband standing alone by his mother’s casket plagues me. I can still see the blurry picture from the FaceTime screen. He donned a well-fitted suit and a black mask. He stood with the same pride that he stood on our wedding day.
I wish I was there with my round belly representing the name she was most proud of—Grandma. I wish our toddler was teetering around bringing life that only a child can bring.
But in some ways, it’s also perfectly fitting. She was a single mom and my husband was her pride and joy. She’d stood by him through toddlerhood, elementary school, and high school. They’d tackled life as a, sometimes clashing team, but my husband never doubted her devotion to him. She would’ve been delighted by his poise and dedication. It seemed fitting that they tackled this together.
My husband and I have been wading the waters of grief. We grieve the visits stolen with my mother-in-law by the pandemic. We grieve that our girl will never meet her grandmother. However, in the midst of our grief, we’ve celebrated the gift of a continued pregnancy. We’ve been given the chance to focus on growing our stubborn yet eager girl. She has her grandmother’s fighting spirit, and it’s an honor to carry that.
There’s very little closure with a FaceTime funeral. It heightens the feelings of denial.
I’m often struck by the reality that, when the world returns to normal, my mother-in-law will not return. Her death seems to be a symptom of this formidable pandemic.
I suspect many of us will look at this unprecedented time and marvel at the ways our worlds were changed. We’ll remember family dinners and evening walks. We’ll remember game nights and movie nights.
We’ll remember remote learning and off-site work, but we’ll also remember face masks soaked by tears, hospital admissions in isolation, and goodbyes never given. We’ll even remember FaceTime funerals.
As we navigate grief and moments stolen by a pandemic, I hope we remember how incredibly resilient we are—even when we wished we were given a different choice.